Choir members at St. Augustine Catholic Church had no sooner unpacked their bags from a concert tour of Japan in October than they were jetting off again for a singing engagement in Italy in November.
Jet-lagged but far from world-weary, the religious pilgrims of St. Augustine are now making plans for a singing tour of Africa in the next two years.
On any given day, church groups from the Washington region are trotting around the globe. It is a way that churches have found to share their fellowship, as well as to spread the gospel word, religious leaders say.
"They are all constantly going somewhere and doing something," said Patrick Ellis, the host of the Sunday Morning Gospel Show at WHUR-FM radio, which includes a travelogue segment devoted to the excursions of the region's churches. "Sometimes I think I'm becoming a travel agent."
While church groups such as the choir of St. Augustine Church, at 1419 V St. NW, often hit the road as part of their music ministry, a growing number of these groups are traveling simply for pleasure's sake, Ellis said.
"Christian people are just looking for ways and means of wholesome fellowship, and apparently some of these trips have proven to be a good meeting place," Ellis said.
The volume of church travel announcements became so great that the broadcaster created the WHUR travelogue about seven years ago. One portion of the travelogue announces churches' domestic travel plans, and another segment lists the churches' international trips.
For many church groups, shopping trips on the East Coast are a big draw. Amusement parks are another. Mountain resorts are a favorite, as are cross-country train trips. Some church groups are making aggressive efforts to mix their local traveling stints with more exotic locales when budgets allow.
About 370 members of Shiloh Baptist Church, at 1500 Ninth St. NW, scrimped for months to pay $1,500 each for a trip to Bethlehem. They had received an invitation from the Israeli government to sing at Manger Square during Christmas 1988.
"It was quite a trip," Arthur Henderson, a deacon at Shiloh, said. "They got the opportunity to spread the gospel. Shiloh, being the type of church it is, is not just within the walls of the church. It's doing what the Bible has said, going other places, preaching and teaching and saving souls."
Beyond winning souls, the message spread by some churches also can have a timely impact.
A group of singers from St. Augustine Catholic Church, most of whose members are black, happened to be crisscrossing Japan in October shortly after the justice minister there made derogatory remarks comparing black Americans to prostitutes. The financial arrangements for the trip were covered by a businessman who attends St. Augustine, as well as a Japanese coalition to stop racism directed at blacks.
"These were real live black people saying, 'Look, we have something to offer you people,' " said Leon Roberts, the church's director of music ministry. "They learned that we are just as much a part of the human family as they are."
In the four concert halls where the singers performed during their two-week trip, Roberts said, the power of their gospel music moved the Japanese to tears. Dozens of Japanese concert-goers came on stage and joined in the singing and clapping.
A month later, when about 70 members of the St. Augustine choir traveled to the heart of Roman Catholicism, the experience of touching lives repeated itself. The concerts held by choir members packed the church pews and aisles in Florence, Rome and Assisi over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Italy was the first trip abroad for about 20 of the choir members, many of whom paid for the visit by holding bake sales and other fund-raisers. It was an emotional moment for all of them when the choir got an audience with Pope John Paul II.
Willie Thomas, who has sung bass in the choir for 14 years, described the trip as a "revelation." Thomas had gone on church trips to Ohio, New York and Philadelphia. But he had never before gone out of the country with the choir.
Thomas said the nine-day Italy trip made him feel closer to the choir, which has become like family. But he said it also has put him more in touch with the rest of the world.
"It was more like communing with different people," said Thomas, a systems analyst for Bell Atlantic Telephone Co. "I didn't have any expectations, and it was the best vacation I ever took in my life."
Such "vacations" as the choir's trip to Italy come about only after months of hard work. Two nights a week, choir members assemble under the stained-glass dome at St. Augustine Church to rehearse.
Their immediate goal now is to perfect their singing in time for Christmas Mass. But the long-term goal is to get to South Africa, where St. Augustine has a sister church.
"When you get a taste of sharing your gift," said the Rev. John Payne, an assistant pastor, "you don't want to stop."